Forget the “all politics is local” bromides. Contests for the House of Representatives often turn on national themes. Just ask Newt Gingrich, who in 1994 used dissatisfaction with the Clinton Administration and the gimmick of a “Contract With America” to gain fifty-two Republican seats and take charge of the chamber. Since then, Democrats have steadily improved their position, so that this year they need win only six additional seats to retake the House. With a Republican in the White House and a sickly economy, 2002 should by most traditional political measures be a year of Democratic gains. Yet there are no guarantees that it will be; in fact, most analyses of competitive races in early October suggested that Republicans could hold their losses below the magic six-seat level, and few pundits ruled out the possibility of modest GOP gains. While Democrats held their own in redistricting battles to redraw House lines across the country, did a decent job of recruiting candidates and have not fallen too far behind in the competition for campaign money, so far they have failed to turn this election into a referendum on Republican rule. That’s a serious matter for the party–and, maybe, for the country. If Republicans retain control of the House and gain one Senate seat, as is possible, the Bush White House will be positioned to dominate federal policy-making for the next two years.

Despite the high stakes, polls suggest that most Americans have yet to engage in a serious way with this year’s House races. And they may never do so; just 36 percent of eligible voters participated in the last round of midterm Congressional elections. Disengagement suits House Republican leaders just fine. A low-turnout, unfocused election is their best bet to remain in control. But for House minority leader Dick Gephardt, this is likely to be his last chance to win the Speaker of the House position that has remained just beyond his grasp–and, perhaps, to position himself as a 2004 presidential contender.

Much of the fault for the absence of the issue focus and the energy that could put Democrats in position to regain control of the House can be laid at the door of Gephardt and his so-called strategists. They have been embarrassingly timid about questioning–let alone combating–the White House’s moves to shift the national debate away from issues of corporate crime and economic uncertainty that might benefit Democrats to national security issues that Bush political czar Karl Rove openly admits are critical to Republican prospects. By failing to challenge the Administration’s Iraq attack strategy, Gephardt handed Republicans the tool they used to divert the debate and divide Democrats–a majority of House Democratic Caucus members (including Democratic whip Nancy Pelosi) voted against the Iraq resolution that Gephardt backed. Gephardt’s assistance to the White House earned him no political points. But it certainly helped Bush, who was able to steer the debate away from the economy in the critical agenda-setting weeks after Labor Day. With three weeks left before the election, as Gephardt was still testing themes in Washington, Bush was waving the flag at rallies for GOP House candidates.

The failure of Democratic leaders to put their spin on the House fight has contributed to the patchwork-quilt character of competition where economic and national security issues resonate differently in different districts, where regional concerns take on greater significance and where personalities and strategic gambits are of exaggerated consequence. This doesn’t mean, however, that there are no insights to be gained from these battles; five very different contests across the country offer philosophical and strategic lessons for a party that is clearly having trouble finding its way.


South Dakota

When Democrats in Washington saw maps of voting patterns in the 2000 presidential election, they finally realized that the party had a serious problem in rural America. Vast stretches of the country between the West Coast and the Mississippi were painted red for Bush, with so many states registering so little support for the national Democratic ticket that Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe declared the party needed a “rural strategy.” In few states was the need more evident than South Dakota, where Gore won just 37 percent of the vote and carried only five of sixty-six counties. The DNC is still struggling to figure out how to talk to Americans who drive pickup trucks–generally bumbling toward ill-advised schemes to downplay support for gun control and abortion rights, issues that have helped the party make important inroads among suburban women. But in South Dakota, a 31-year-old rancher’s daughter has used a jagged brand of progressive populism to take charge of the debate over rural issues and to position herself as a contender in what was supposed to be an unwinnable Congressional race.

While national Democrats were waiting for polls to tell them how to make corporate excess a campaign issue, Stephanie Herseth began airing TV commercials that condemned agribusiness monopolies for squeezing family farmers off the land and urged the use of antitrust laws to break up corporate concentration. And while many national Democrats still mistakenly assume that rural America favors “free trade,” Herseth says, “Undeniably, NAFTA has had devastating effects on our state’s manufacturing and agricultural interests,” and she promises to battle for policies that favor “South Dakota workers, farmers and ranchers, not just large corporate interests.” The granddaughter of a former governor who helped George McGovern rebuild the state Democratic Party in the 1950s, Herseth has turned her youth into an asset, arguing that she wants to go to Washington to change policies that force young South Dakotans to leave the state in search of opportunity. That message has brought her even in a race for an open seat against 63-year-old Republican Governor Bill Janklow, who began his political career before Herseth started kindergarten. Her campaign has a down-home feel, with money raised in part by a rummage sale in her hometown of Houghton, where locals add the line “You Go Girl!” to her yard signs. If Herseth wins, however, she will provide her party with a desperately needed model for reaching voters in states where it cannot afford to be uncompetitive.


Illinois

Fearing that opposition to the White House’s push to make Iraq a campaign issue could harm Democratic Congressional candidates, Gephardt gave new meaning to the term “loyal opposition,” going so far as to help draft the resolution authorizing the President to launch a unilateral, pre-emptive attack on Iraq. But in the Midwest, where enthusiasm for a go-it-alone war is less pronounced than in Washington, the issue is playing differently than Democratic strategists imagined. In a tight Iowa contest GOP incumbent Jim Leach and Democratic challenger Dr. Julie Thomas are competing for the antiwar vote, with some analysts saying Leach’s opposition to the President’s request could save his political career. In Wisconsin, Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who won in 2000 with just 51 percent of the vote, appears to be sailing to re-election after working closely with Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Dennis Kucinich to organize House opposition to White House plans. And Hank Perritt, dean of the Chicago-Kent College of Law, has shaken up a quiet suburban Chicago race by loudly disagreeing with Gephardt’s approach.

Perritt, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations with broad overseas experience, wrote a September editorial for the Washington Post titled, “My Party Must Say No to War.” Perritt’s challenge to Republican incumbent Mark Kirk remains an uphill one. But his effort to make the contest a “referendum” on what he characterizes as the Bush Administration’s reckless and misleading plans to start a war has energized his underfunded campaign, drawing contributions, volunteers and even an offer of help from former NATO commander Wesley Clark. Though he can’t count on the support of one of the district’s former representatives, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he has drawn strong backing from another, Abner Mikva, a Congressional critic of the Vietnam War and the last Democrat to represent the area. If Perritt posts a strong showing in this Republican-leaning district, it could signal that he, rather than Gephardt, read the war issue right.


Arizona

The great demographic question in American politics for a decade has been when–not if–the nation’s burgeoning Hispanic population will become a force in Congressional elections. With forty-seven Latinos, including nineteen incumbents, seeking House seats, this could be the year. And Arizona could be the breakthrough state. Incumbent Representative Ed Pastor will be re-elected with ease, while former Pima County Supervisor Raul Grijalva should win one of two new seats created in redistricting that reflects an 80 percent increase in the state’s Hispanic population. And 36-year-old newcomer George Cordova is in the running to win the other new seat. A venture capitalist with enough money to jump-start his campaign, Cordova eschewed the tactic of flooding the airwaves with commercials and instead spent a year on the road courting voters in remote corners of a district where 16 percent of the population is Hispanic, 23 percent is Native American and miners well recall the bitter 1980s Phelps Dodge strike and other labor battles.

Cordova speaks the language of the district: Born in Mexico, he worked as a migrant laborer as a child and proudly recalls his father’s United Farm Workers activism. He won pre-primary endorsements not just from Latino political pioneers like former Arizona Governor Raul Castro but also from more than fifty Navajo tribal chapters and all of the region’s United Steelworkers locals. The first sign of this coalition’s potency came when Cordova’s campaign collected more signatures on nominating petitions–over 6,100–than any other Congressional candidate. The next came when he beat both Steve Udall, a member of the state’s most prominent Democratic family, and former Clinton aide Fred DuVal in the primary. National Democratic officials scrambled to get to know their nominee and discovered a savvy, bilingual candidate who wants to expand health programs and get the federal government back into the fight against rural poverty. Republicans scrambled as well; President Bush and Vice President Cheney have both visited Arizona to raise money for the GOP contender, transplanted Virginian Rick Renzi. If Cordova’s campaign gets Hispanic, Native American and union voters to the polls in sufficient numbers–no easy task in a district without urban centers–his brand of grassroots, multi-ethnic politics could end up teaching both major parties a lesson about the changing face of politics.


Georgia

The once-a-decade redrawing of district lines plays a bigger role than issues or campaign money in determining the makeup of the House. By forging districts where voting patterns favor candidates of one party, state legislators and governors preclude serious competition for the vast majority of Congressional seats. After the 2000 census, GOP mapmakers helped their party’s prospects for holding the House by drawing favorable districts in Pennsylvania and Florida, but Georgia Democrats may have single-handedly offset most of the anticipated Republican gains in other states by drawing a map that maximizes the influence of black voters. Key to this strategy was abandoning the old view that African-American candidates need majority-minority districts to win. Instead, mapmakers drew at least four new Democratic-leaning districts with white majorities but substantial numbers of black voters. Republicans now dominate the Georgia House delegation 8-3, but as a result of redistricting there is a good chance that Democrats will pick up four seats in November–the best increase they are likely to post in any state. Two of those new representatives are likely to be African-Americans, a development that would give Georgia a record-setting five minority members of Congress.

One likely winner is State Senator David Scott, a twenty-eight-year veteran of the Georgia legislature–he was first elected when segregationist Lester Maddox still held statewide office–who easily won a four-way Democratic primary. Now he is the front-runner in a suburban Atlanta district drawn to combine a strong African-American base (41 percent of the population) with liberal white voters who are likely to be impressed with Scott’s record of opposition to school vouchers and support for environmental protection and women’s rights.


Maine

Abortion is a big issue in one of the nation’s most competitive Congressional races, with one candidate drawing substantial support from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood and the other favored by the National Right to Life Political Action Committee. But the battle for the open seat in Maine’s 2nd District is not a typical contest between a prochoice Democrat and an antichoice Republican: State Senate President Mike Michaud, the Democrat, is the one with the antiabortion record, while Republican Kevin Raye is hailed by NARAL’s Kate Michelman as “a very good candidate.”

Despite a heavily blue-collar and Catholic population, the district has not elected an antiabortion representative since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. So the abortion issue has created a complex dynamic. Michaud, a paper-mill worker and union member, has a liberal record on most issues and promises that he would be a national leader in fights for corporate accountability, fair trade and legislation that would have the federal government follow Maine’s model of negotiating with drug companies to force drug prices down. And his vote would help put prochoice Democrats in charge of the House, empowering them to block the Bush Administration’s antiabortion initiatives. Raye is a probusiness conservative who would vote with antichoice Republican House leaders. But district voters have never spent much time worrying about Washington power plays, while they have routinely elected prochoice candidates–Republican former Representative William Cohen, who became Bill Clinton’s Defense Secretary, and Olympia Snowe, now the state’s senior senator, and Democrats like outgoing incumbent John Baldacci, who received a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood.

Michaud has tried to ease tensions by saying he would not support a constitutional amendment to ban abortion and struggling to steer the debate toward economic issues. He may succeed: Maine’s economy is hurting badly, and unions are pulling out all the stops to elect one of their own. But the race remains close and contains a lesson for Democrats: A party that has pushed voters to support often-disappointing Democratic nominees in order to defend reproductive rights should not be surprised when those voters have a hard time supporting a Democrat who does not share that commitment. Democrats across the country could find themselves wrestling with the issue in 2004 if Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Kucinich, a hero of the antiwar movement and champion of progressive economic causes who has cast many antichoice votes, tries to win the party’s presidential nomination.

Maine Democrats have kept some wavering partisans on board with a message that the House of Representatives chosen November 5 will either empower or restrain the Bush Administration in the middle of one of the most tumultuous terms in presidential history. The Bush White House knows that is the fundamental issue of 2002, and–after a year of positioning for this moment–it’s busy making the case for empowering the President. With a dwindling number of days to go before the election, however, it is still not clear that national Democratic leaders will muster the counterargument that resonates with voters.